Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
Directed by: Robert Aldrich.
Written by: Lukas Heller based on the novel by Henry Farrell.
Starring: Bette Davis (Baby Jane Hudson), Joan Crawford (Blanche Hudson), Victor Buono (Edwin Flagg), Maidie Norman (Elvira Stitt), Anna Lee (Mrs. Bates), B. D. Merrill (Liza Bates), Marjorie Bennett (Dehlia Flagg), Dave Willock (Ray Hudson), Julie Allred (Young Jane), Gina Gillespie (Young Blanche).
Robert Aldrich’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is often described as a camp classic, most likely because the film is melodramatic and features two aging, Hollywood legends – Bette Davis and Joan Crawford – overacting terrifically, trying to outdo each other onscreen and off – where they hated each other more than the characters in the movie do, and that’s saying something. Ryan Murphy is making another of his “limited series” about the rivalry between Davis and Crawford starring Susan Sarandon as Davis (great) and Jessica Lange as Crawford (um, okay, I guess –Lange is a terrific actress, but I don’t see her as Crawford) which has the potential to be either terrific or a disaster and I can’t wait to find out which. But Whatever Happened to Baby Jane is more than camp – or at least more than just camp, as it is undeniably that as well. As the film moves along it gets creepier and creepier, and starts to get under your skin and into your head, leading to the wonderfully, hauntingly weird finale.
By 1962, both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford had seen their career peaks come and go years before. Neither actress had hit the age of 60 yet – but, like most actresses, even these two icons had aged out of the truly great roles for women. Davis, who was nominated for a total of 10 Oscars – and won 2 - , hadn’t been nominated for a decade, and hadn’t one in more than 30. Crawford had less Oscar success – just three nominations, and one win, but again, it had been a decade since she was nominated. The two actresses had apparently hated each other as far back as the 1930s – when they were two of the biggest stars in the world. The fact that they hated each other didn’t stop them from making the film together – and probably made the film even better, as after all, they are playing sisters who pretty much hate each other and who were lifelong rivals. The actresses get to compete, much like the characters do.
It must be said that it isn’t much of a fair fight. Crawford was a terrific actress, but on her best day, she was still no Bette Davis. To make matters worse, Davis gets to play the title character – Baby Jane Hudson, who descends into madness throughout the movie as she torments her sister, is plastered with hideous makeup, flirts with an obviously gay man, and sings one hell of a creepy version of a song meant for little girls (although, it’s creepy when they sing it to – in a different way). Poor Crawford, who has to play Baby Jane’s sister Blanche as a sympathetic victim – who spends much of the last half of the movie unconscious, could not possibly compete with that, as much as Crawford tries.
The film opens in 1917, where we see Baby Jane as a huge star on the Vaudeville stage, singing sickly sweet songs like “A Letter to Daddy” – in which she sends a letter to heaven to her dead father. Her onstage persona is pure innocence – offstage, she’s a spoiled monster. Her sister is Blanche – who gets no attention whatsoever. Flash forward to the 1930s, and Blanche is a huge Hollywood star, and Jane only gets work because Blanche has it in her contract that Jane has to get make a movie for every one Blanche does. A drunken accident, with Jane at the wheel, leaves Blanche paralyzed from the waist down. Now, in the early 1960s, the two sisters are basically shut-ins – with Blanche trapped upstairs of their large house, under the care of Jane (for reasons that don’t really make sense), who ups the ante on the psychological warfare she wages on Blanche, and further isolating her from anyone outside the house. Jane also believes she’s going to make a comeback – and hires Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono) to play the piano as she practices her new versions of her old standards. Edwin’s warped relationship with his mother (Marjorie Bennett) could be a whole movie unto itself. Edwin’s obvious homosexuality is never remarked on in the film, but adds more layers of camp, but also to the psychological underpinnings of the film.
The film was directed by Robert Aldrich, who isn’t one of the greatest director of all time, but was one hell of a journeyman director. In films like Kiss Me Deadly (1955), The Dirty Dozen (1967) and many (many) more, Aldrich always delivered, no matter what the genre was. Here, he is smart enough to let Davis, Crawford and Buono go for broke in front of the camera, and basically stay out of the way. His direction is impressive however in its use of space – separating the upstairs and downstairs, and because he allows scenes to take their time. The film clocks in over two hours, but doesn’t feel like it. He’s also able to stage one hell of a creepy finale in broad daylight, on a crowded beach – which could not have been easy.
If the two actresses saw the film as a battleground for the two of them to hash out their fight, than Davis won before they even started filming, because she got the clearly better role. She also got her 10th (and final) Best Actress nomination for the film, and two years later when Aldrich wanted to get her and Crawford back together for Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte it was Crawford who was replaced (with Olivia de Havilland) when the pair couldn’t get along well enough to make the film (or because Crawford got sick – which isn’t nearly as much fun). The two actresses would continue to work until their deaths – Crawford’s in 1977 and Davis in 1989 – although in both cases, you could probably argue this was their last peak.